There’s a gulf in country music as wide as the Grand Canyon. On one side is a shopping mall, full of cowboy hats, sequins and schlocky songs with a well-polished sheen. On the other is a saloon, with soaring voices, twanging guitars and songs gutsy enough to shake the shingles loose. Neko Case resides on the saloon side of country. Over the course of three impassioned studio albums and countless tours of rowdy barrooms, Case has blazed a trail across North America that left fans awestruck and critics breathlessly drawing comparisons to Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn.
Now Case has made an album that captures the unbridled emotion of her live shows. Recorded in three different venues, including Toronto’s legendary Matador club, a beer-soaked joint where Lynn and other country icons have performed, The Tigers Have Spoken is a genuine honky-tonk classic. With backing by longtime friends including the Sadies, Toronto’s talented psych-country rockers, it’s rich in ultra-cool covers and instantly memorable originals. “We didn’t plan too hard,” says Case. “We just chose songs that we liked performing and played well together.”
The album opens with “If You Knew,” a new song that crosses “Your Cheatin’ Heart” subject matter with “Ghostriders in the Sky” sounds. Over spooky, reverb-heavy guitars, Case sings of a heartless Jezebel who “spends her Daddy’s money and drives her Daddy’s car.” Case’s other new number, the touching title track, is a heartfelt plea on behalf of incarcerated wildlife. The aching “Favorite” and spiraling “Blacklisted,” with its spaghetti-western vibe, are live versions of songs from her previous albums. Meanwhile, the recording’s covers range from Case’s sassy update of Lynn’s “Rated X” to a frenzied, bluegrass rendition of “This Little Light.” She also delivers a rollicking version of “Train from Kansas City,” by the Shangri-las, with vocal backing from singers Kelly Hogan and Carolyn Mark. “We had a bitchy girl-group thing going on, with Kelly and Carolyn on board,” says Case, “so we really tried to take advantage of that.”
Despite her penchant for country music, Case actually has a rock background. A native of Tacoma, Washington, she grew up loving the sound of local arena-rockers Heart, particularly the singing, guitar-slinging sisters Ann and Nancy Wilson, and remembers singing their songs into a hairbrush in front of the mirror on her roller skates. After moving to Canada, Case earned her Bachelor of Fine Arts from Vancouver’s Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design while drumming for punk rockers Cub and Maow. For her own albums, The Virginian (1997), Furnace Room Lullaby (2000) and Blacklisted (2002), she embraced a high, lonesome sound that Rolling Stone called “country so cool it shivers.” Yet she’s never entirely abandoned the rock chick inside her, lending her vocal gusto to Vancouver’s power-pop supergroup the New Pornographers.
With her residency history and band memberships, Case almost qualifies as a Canadian. Now living in Chicago, she maintains close ties with chief Pornographer Carl Newman and, of course, the Sadies, who she calls “the best damn live band in North America.” Before recording The Tigers Have Spoken at Toronto’s Matador and Lee’s Palace clubs, Case talked with the Sadies’ Dallas and Travis Good about what songs they might cover and decided on “Soulful Shade of Blue,” by native singer Buffy Sainte-Marie. “She’s one of the first recording artists I ever remember hearing,” Case recalls. “I loved her so much that I named my first dog after her. Plus,” she adds, “Buffy’s a Canadian, which seemed appropriate for the project.”
A relentless touring artist, Case spends 10 months of the year on the road, traveling from town to town, bar to bar, in her trusty GMC Diesel van. “I have no husband and no children,” explains the 34-year-old bombshell, recently voted “Sexiest Babe of Indie Rock” by Playboy readers, “so I can do whatever I want.” Currently, Case is in Tucson, recording her next studio album, which promises more superb torch ’n’ twang. Guests will include her usual suspects, including members of the Sadies and eclectic Arizona rockers Calexico. But she’ll also be joined by Garth Hudson, formerly of the Band. “I’m terrified,” says Case, of the prospect of meeting the legendary organist. “I’m going to try and be cool and not ask him about Big Pink.” Hudson, meanwhile, will be hard pressed not to ask Case how a gal from the Pacific Northwest came by such a bewitching and bona-fide country sound.